2015 Equality Gala Keynote

Equality NC Foundation proudly welcomes Jim Obergefell as this year’s keynote speaker.

Jim Obergefell
Lead Plaintiff in "Obergfell vs. Hodges," which brought marriage equality nationwide on June 26th, 2015

Seeking state recognition for his marriage, Jim Obergefell became the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that would legalize same-sex marriage across the United States.

Future activist Jim Obergefell was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, the youngest in a Catholic clan with five other children. He came out as gay to his family in his mid-20s, and in 1992 met John Arthur. Obergefell and Arthur met twice at a Cincinnati bar, but felt no sparks until they connected for a third time at a friend’s party. They soon fell deeply in love and built a life together in Cincinnati. The lived and worked together as consultants, followed a passion for collecting art and surrounded themselves with an extensive network of friends and family.

In 2011, Arthur began to have severe issues with mobility, and he was eventually diagnosed with the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the condition eventually taking away Arthur’s ability to move, Obergefell stood by his side and served as his partner’s primary caretaker. The two had decided to become legally married, but several years earlier Ohio had passed a state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage.

With Maryland being a state where same-sex marriage was legal and that only required one partner to travel there to get a license, Obergefell received $13,000 from friends and associates to hire a medical plane to fly him and Arthur to Maryland. With Arthur’s aunt Paulette Roberts officiating their ceremony, Obergefell and Arthur got married on the tarmac of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on July 11, 2013.

Arthur died three months after the wedding. Before his death, he and Obergefell had decided to file a lawsuit for Obergefell to be placed as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate, with a federal judge ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The state of Ohio however challenged this ruling and won, with other circuit court decisions delivering pro-same-sex marriage rulings in contrast. Thus Obergefell decided to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court, with a precedent having been set in the case of Windsor v. United States. Obergefell’s case became combined with other lawsuits filed by LGBT plaintiffs from four states, which also involved same-sex couples who had adopted children. As Obergefell’s case number was the lowest, the combined lawsuit became known as Obergefell v. Hodges.

Obergefell’s case presented two questions: 1) whether the Constitution calls for states where gay marriage isn’t legal to recognize gay unions that occurred out of state, and 2) whether the Constitution legally requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Obergefell and his team presented his case before the Supreme Court on April 28, 2015. Two months later, on June 26, 2015, the highest court in the nation ruled in a split decision of 5–4 ruled that the Constitution indeed supports same-sex marriage, thus making such unions legal for the entirety of the United States.

Not seeing himself as a traditional activist, after the ruling an emotional Obergefell spoke of his love for his husband and received calls of congratulations from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. That weekend, Obergefell took part in pride celebrations in his home city and San Francisco and has continued to be embraced by a wave of people as an iconic hero.

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